07 November 2008

Tao Te Ching, character by character

Okay, technically "dao de jing" is more accurate, but more people recognize the text under the old transliteration. Either way, I found a site that links to one version of the Chinese text and every character hyperlinks to its definition. The site is Zhongwen.com and the Dao de Jing is here. Oh, "zhongwen" is usually translated as "the Chinese language," though apparently "wen" technically refers only to the written component.

Before ever taking Chinese, I made an attempt to decipher some of the characters. I didn't get very far. The problem is that you need an understanding of the language structure to figure out a lot of the meanings. Even then, the Dao de Jing is a very old text, and character usage tends to change over time. Complicating matters, the original text contained no punctuation marks, so translators have to figure out where the breaks ought to go. Comma placement does matter, after all. There's even a book out. "Eats shoots and leaves" is quite different from "Eats, Shoots and Leaves".

Still, I quite enjoy going through the text character by character and comparing it with the various English translations I've got lying around. Though it's almost too easy at the site I just linked to. Last night, I began playing around with the Chinese dictionary that was an optional buy with my Chinese textbooks. It took me a while to work out how the thing works. The English side was easy enough, but looking up a Chinese character is tricky. Each character is made up of smaller units called "radicals". To start, you pick off the "first" radical (usually the leftmost one; possibly the upper leftmost one in a complicated character) and find it in a list ordered by the number of strokes in the character. That gives you a number, and when you go to that number in a second list, there's a list of characters that begin with that particular radical. From that list, you find the pinyin equivalent of the character. Then you go into the actual dictionary part and find the pinyin alphabetically, watching out for homophones. There you find potential English translations. It's a good idea to see if any of them contain the character you want plus the next character in the sentence, in case there's a compound word there where the separate meanings don't help you figure out the combined meaning.

While the process is complicated, it also makes the end result more memorable. It took more work to get there, so I have more of a chance, as well as more motivation, to try and remember it. Of course, I got stuck pretty quickly with Red Pine's version of the Chinese text. I suspect this is because he's using older versions of some of the characters, and I barely know enough to recognize some of the basic modern ones, let alone try to figure out what the older versions might have looked like. Still, it's enjoyable to be able to puzzle out bits and pieces of the text. It will take lots more practice and study before I can get much out of it without the help of existing translations, but it will be fun to try anyway.

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